The comedy world continues to come to terms this week with the death of Norm Macdonald, who died on Tuesday at the age of 61. Beyond his bona fides as a former Saturday Night Live star (to say nothing of the cult status of projects like Dirty Work), Macdonald enjoyed a reputation as a “comedian’s comedian,” the kind of guy who could walk onto the set of a talk show and casually reduce professional joke-tellers to tears and begging requests to “Please don’t make me laugh at this.” As we noted in our round-up of the many clips of Macdonald that circulated online this week, he was one of the best “bad” talk show guests of all time, injecting irreverence and energy into a sometimes very rote formula. But he almost got banned from one of his most prolific venues for that deadpan absurdity, per that show’s host: Conan O’Brien.
This is per The Daily Beast, reporting on a podcast O’Brien released this week as a way to talk about Macdonald’s influence on his career. Talking with Andy Richter and long-time producer Frank Smiley, O’Brien spoke effusively about Macdonald, including his desire that the comedian could have seen all the praise from fans that has overflowed online since his death. “He took so much flak in his career, he took so much shit,” O’Brien said. “And yes, he knew that he had fans, but I wish he had been able to read the stuff that’s being written about him. I wish he knew how beloved he is.”
The most famous of that taken-shit, of course, was Macdonald’s firing from Saturday Night Live, which has generally been attributed to his refusal to stop telling jokes about O.J. Simpson, a personal friend of NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer. Per O’Brien, that dislike on Ohlmeyer’s part didn’t stop at the doors of Studio 8H, either: After Macdonald’s firing, the executive handed down an order that O’Brien ban the comedian from his show, as well.
“The word came down, ‘You can’t book Norm Macdonald anymore,’” O’Brien revealed on the podcast. “And it came from the top, from Don Ohlmeyer.” O’Brien, then five years into a run on Late Night that Ohlmeyer had helped assemble and sign off on, wrote back, “I got this directive. You’ve hired me to do the best show I can and this is my best guest. So I need to do my job, which is the best show I can do.” Ohlmeyer reportedly said he was “disappointed” by the decision, but apparently relented; Macdonald would appear more than two dozen times on O’Brien’s various NBC shows, creating some of the most memorable moments in those series’ history.